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East Timor Leader Says Fledgling Democracy Still Fragile

December 7 is best known around the world as the date of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But for people of another island nation, it marks the anniversary of a different attack. The country's president is urging his countrymen to reflect on this date on how the country is now building new democratic institutions.

Speaking during a visit to Washington, East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao says his country is committed to building democratic institutions. But he adds that it still has a ways to go to achieving its goals.

"The commitment of the Timorese people to the democratic process is, in my view, indisputable," he said. "But we are still in the phase of building a state, a democratic state based on the rule of law. It is in these terms that we recognize that our process is still fragile."

On December 7, 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor after Portugal abruptly abdicated its colonial rule. East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence in a 1999 referendum that was marred by widespread violence and intimidation by pro-Indonesian militias. After three years under U.N. administration, formal independence was declared in 2002, with Mr. Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader, voted in as the first president.

Today East Timor is dealing with all the responsibilities that freedom brings. Mr. Gusmao says the country's priorities are basic amenities for the East Timorese people, like food and clean drinking water. But, he says, national reconciliation is vital.

"The Timorese people understood and assumed that victory in the referendum should not mean the superiority of the victors over the defeated as this sentiment always carries with it the desire for revenge, which in turn can become a systematic means of reprisal," he said. "It is there that abuses occur and power becomes a means of legitimizing violence."

As for the invaders of 1975, Mr. Gusmao says his government is committed to healing any rift with Indonesia, especially with a government in place under newly elected Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

"We remain committed to strengthening our relationship with Indonesia in the hope that with the new government, we can shortly sign the accord on the land border," he said.

Mr. Gusmao says most of the details on demarcating the border between East Timor and West Timor, which remains under Indonesian control, have already been negotiated.